Search form

Massachusetts High Court Paves Way for Employees to Engage in ‘Self-Help’ Discovery

By Brian E. Lewis
  • June 13, 2016

The highest court in Massachusetts has ruled that, in certain instances, an employee can access and obtain an employer’s records in order to support a claim of employment discrimination. Verdrager v. Mintz Levin, No. SJC-11901 (May 31, 2016).

According to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, employers must balance the efficiency of document sharing with their employees with the risk that employees will conduct their own self-help-discovery before and after initiating litigation.

Background

The plaintiff, a former associate at the defendant law firm, alleged that she was subjected to gender discrimination and unlawful retaliation. While still employed at the law firm (and after filing a claim of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”)), the plaintiff accessed the firm’s document management system, searching for documents and communications that could support her discrimination claim. She accessed and forwarded dozens of documents to her personal email account, even sharing some with her attorney. The law firm terminated the plaintiff, contending that she unlawfully accessed law firm documents.

Self-Help Discovery

The plaintiff alleged that she was discriminated against based on her gender and that the firm fired her in retaliation for filing her MCAD complaint. In ruling that the plaintiff’s claims can proceed to a jury, the SJC also ruled on whether her “self-help” discovery could be considered “protected activity” under the state’s anti-retaliation laws. The SJC held that, in certain instances, this form of “self-help discovery” may constitute protected activity.

The SJC explained that a court must consider the “totality of the circumstances” to determine whether the plaintiff’s actions could be protected activity. It said that courts must consider the following seven factors:

  1. how the employee came to have possession of, or access to, the document;
  2. a balancing of the relevance of the documents to the employee’s suit with the disruption caused to the employer’s ordinary business by the access;
  3. the strength of the employee’s expressed reason for copying the document rather than obtaining it through pre-trial discovery;
  4. whether the employee shared the document only with her attorney or also with other employees;
  5. the strength of the employer’s interest in keeping the document confidential;
  6. whether the employee violated “a clearly identified company policy on privacy or confidentiality”; and
  7. and the broad remedial purposes of the anti-discrimination laws.

The Court did not apply the above analysis to the plaintiff’s actions, instead remanding the task for a jury to consider.

***

Following the Court’s decision, in at least some circumstances, an employee may access company databases and records to support claims of discrimination. Companies, therefore, should review their practices, policies, and procedures with respect to the safe-guarding, storage, and maintenance of confidential documents. As has long been the case, employers are well-served by ensuring that employees generally are given access only to those documents they need to perform their jobs.

Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to discuss these issues and other workplace matters.

Ethan Kenerson, a summer associate, assisted in the writing of this article.

©2016 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Reproduction of this material in whole or in part is prohibited without the express prior written consent of Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm that built its reputation on providing workplace law representation to management. Founded in 1958, the firm has grown to more than 900 attorneys in major cities nationwide serving clients across a wide range of practices and industries including government relations, healthcare and sports law. More information about Jackson Lewis can be found at www.jacksonlewis.com.

See AllRelated Articles You May Like

December 13, 2019

Restaurant Industry Workplace Law Update – Fall 2019

December 13, 2019

To assist restaurant owners and professionals in assessing emerging employment risks, we are pleased to provide the first issue of our newsletter. The Restaurant Industry Workplace Law Update highlights topical issues in claims, defenses, and liability risk management developments. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems Decision on Arbitration... Read More

December 12, 2019

California Bar on Mandatory Arbitration Agreements in Employment Challenged, Injunction Sought

December 12, 2019

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations have filed suit in federal court against the State of California to have AB 51 declared preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Becerra, No. 2:19-cv-2456 KJM DB. Alternatively, the lawsuit seeks a declaration that AB 51’s... Read More

December 10, 2019

End of Year Developments for New York Employers

December 10, 2019

As 2019 comes to a close, legislative and administrative actions in New York require consideration by employers in the state. First, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation adding reproductive rights as a protected class under the state Human Rights Law. Such an enactment usually requires an employer: (1) to ensure that there is... Read More

Related Practices